LEADERSHIP Warren Bennis – On “geeks and geezers” and real experiences

Warren Bennis has done more todebunk the heroic leadership myth than just about any other business thinker. Leaders, he argues, are made not born. Bennis has produced steady stream of books and his recently published Geeks and Geezers compares leaders under-35 (“geeks”) with those over 70 (“geezers”). Now in his late 70s, Bennis’ intellectual energy and output remains formidable. Bennis talked to Management’s contributing writer, Stuart Crainer, who visited him at his new office at Harvard Business School where he is spending time as an adviser on leadership.

What motivated you to compare young and old leaders?
I want to understand human development. I think that’s the new challenge. In the future we will see chairs in cognitive psychology and human development established in business schools. Human development will be an integral part of leadership curricula. That’s what I would have gone into if I was deciding now. There are two basic things that I’m really excited about and want to understand. When I go out and talk to my students, who are 20-year-olds, and young executives, I’m not sure I really understand how they see the world. These people are visual, digital, and virtual. I want to understand what their aspirations are; how they perceive the world; how they define success; what their career goals are. Basically, what provides the meaning in their lives.

The second group, the 70-plus leaders, are all people who manage to keep their minds open and continuously reinvent themselves. I want to know why these people keep growing and why other people get stuck. I’ve seen people in their 40s who are on treadmill to oblivion. But these older leaders are still hungry for growth. Why?

Aren’t the older leaders – the geezers – inevitably more interesting than the geeks?
I am one of them so I would hate to sound biased or judgemental but, they have lived longer and gone through an awful lot. What the geeks haven’t experienced are the crucibles like the Second World War and the Depression. They have had formative years of almost uninterrupted prosperity, growth and success. They are often children of affluence. September 11 was the first collective shock to the worldview they grew up with. It was jolt to them.

You talk of the geeks being smothered in possibilities.
The world’s their oyster and they can choose what they do. I think it creates anxiety. They have so many options and possibilities.

You argue that crucibles are important in people’s development. Can you create your own crucible?
That’s the big question. I think they are created all the time. Having to fire people, being fired, being shipped to an office you don’t like, thinking that you have been demoted when maybe you haven’t. My concern is how we use such everyday crucibles, which we’re not sometimes conscious of. We all experience crucibles but what do we do at the back end of them? Do we learn from them? Do we extract wisdom from them? It isn’t question of how we create them; they happen and happen almost all the time. But do we think of them as dream so that when we wake up and brush our teeth it vaporises or do we think about the dream and learn from that?

But you can’t be held responsible for the era in which you live.
President Clinton was always slightly envious that he didn’t have war to deal with, to prove himself. Teddy Roosevelt was the same, though he had few minor skirmishes. You could look at this generation of geeks and say that their formative period ended at 9/11 but it started in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, the Cold War ended and then came the introduction of the world wide web. So it’s not generational thing, it is shorter period.

So leaders have to seek out uncertainty?
In the final analysis, you can’t create Mandela’s Robyn Island or John McCain’s experiences as prisoner of war in Vietnam. They are extreme.

Your experiences in the Second World War were obviously crucible for you, but did you emerge from that thinking of yourself as leader?
What I learned was discipline and sense of self mastery. It shaped me so much and pulled from me things I may otherwise never have experienced. I was very shy and felt that I was boring human being and then in the course of being in the army I felt that I was more interesting to myself. It was coming of age.

Do you detect that same level of self-awareness in the young business leaders you talked to?
I think they feel that they have more licence to talk about themselves and their inner feelings that come through. Unlike some of the geezers who would never dream about talking about their relations with their family and so on. There is real restraint among the geezers, kind of reserve while the younger generation are more free with their feelings, aspirations and things like that.

What about the way we develop leaders? lot of people appear to go on MBA programmes without bedrock of self-awareness.
You’ve got to realise that most business school faculty have never actually run anything. They have not done the heavy lifting of actually leading. I am glad now that business schools are taking people who have worked for three or five years. In many instances they have more experience than the faculty.

I am in favour of national service system. It is badly needed. The youth are all dressed up but have no place to go. This would not be military service – though I wouldn’t exclude the military – so they could get experience before going to law school or business school. There is required course on ethics at Harvard Business School but not at most business schools. It’s very difficult topic but we need to think about the purpose of education. We have to ask the question at business schools is there something more important than money? Do corporations exist for something more than money and the bottom line? Of course they do, but we have to explain it better.

Was there difference between the geeks and the geezers in terms of their attitudes to money?
The geezers were brought up in Maslowian survival mode. Often they grew up in some poverty with limited financial aspirations. They thought that earning $10,000 year would be enough. Compare that to the geeks some of whom made lot of money when they were young. They are operating out of different context. If they were broke they would be more concerned with making living than making history.

How can you bridge the gap between the geeks and the geezers?
We must. After all, we are going to have to get used to lot more geezers like me walking around. I think the geezers may have more difficult time with changes under way – such as technology.

You start to think about mortality in your 60s and there is certain envy towards youth. In your 60s you are no longer promising. The dialogue between generations is important. It is the people who are in the middle group between the geeks and the geezers who are comfortable with the technology but little wiser and older who have to be the articulating point. They have the responsibility I think to be the translators, the people who will help each group.

A number of companies, including General Electric, have reverse mentoring where young people mentor older people to acquaint them with the e-world. There is lot of ageism which I probably wouldn’t be sensitive to except for the fact I am in my 70s. These will be profound issues for society in general.

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